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Marla Frazee (1958-)


Marla Frazee has created illustrations for a number of award-winning books for children, in addition to writing her own self-illustrated titles. Frazee once told SATA that illustrating children's books was a childhood career goal. "I have wanted to be a children's book illustrator for a very long time," she said. "A host of crayoned and stapled childhood efforts attest to that fact. I was first 'published' in the third grade, when my best friend … wrote a story called 'The Friendship Circle' and I illustrated it. It won an award in a state competition, so we were asked to make a duplicate copy for our elementary school library. It was made out of construction paper and held together with brass fasteners, but it sat in the library for years. I remember sneaking peeks at the shelf as our class filed in for library time and seeing it keeping company with real books. I felt as if I'd arrived!

"Speaking of real books, I spent many afternoons at the Tarzana Public Library, wandering through the stacks. I would go from the picture book area, where I then belonged, to the illustrated chapter books, to the Young Adult books—boy, those looked interesting!—and over across the linoleum to the carpeted area of the Grown-Up Books! Of course, I couldn't read many of the titles, much less make sense of them, but I knew that every single book had something interesting in it, something to tell me that I didn't yet know.

" Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, was published when I was already a reader of words. Nevertheless, I was floored by the visual impact of Max's bedroom transforming into the forest. Those four simple page turns held within them all the magic I'd ever seen, from the cinematic wonders of Oz to the E ticket rides at Disneyland. This was what I wanted to do when I grew up! I wanted to try and create page turns that opened onto changing worlds. I also pored over Robert McCloskey's illustrations in Blueberries for Sal, searching for clues. How did he make Sal so endearing? Was it her messy hair? Her T-strap sandals, which I coveted and begged my mother to please, please, please buy for me? The way her overalls kept falling off her shoulder? I spent countless hours studying those wonderful end-papers of Sal and her mother canning blueberries in their cozy kitchen. I wondered how an illustrator could draw a room that somehow included me, the viewer. I don't remember talking to anyone about these issues, but my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Holcomb, made some predictions about what some of her students would grow up to be. She said I would illustrate children's books, painting outdoors in a sunlit meadow. So far, no meadow.

"It was a long road to becoming a children's book illustrator. It has been much easier to find work as an advertising illustrator, a magazine illustrator, an educational illustrator, and as a toy and game illustrator. While I worked at whatever job was then available, I kept sending my work to publishers. After many, many rejections, I was finally offered the chance to illustrate my first book."

This opportunity came when Frazee illustrated Sue Alexander's World Famous Muriel and the Magic Mystery, published in 1990. It was the third in Alexander's series about the clever junior detective, certainly no easy shoes for an illustrator to step into. Yet Bessie Egan, writing in School Library Journal, praised the art as "full of vitality and humorous detail."

Frazee's next picture book was That Kookoory!, written by Margaret Walden Froehlich. Her pen-and-ink drawings garnered rave reviews for their vintage feel, which complement the tale of an indomitable rooster who is so excited by the local fair that he wakens before his barn friends and sets off alone. Kookoory then unwittingly finds himself in danger when he is stalked on the road by a hungry weasel. In the end, his friends rescue him and everybody enjoys the fair—even the weasel. A Publishers Weekly contributor praised the way in which Frazee managed to convey the various shifts of time over the course of Kookoory's long and event-filled day, and mentioned "her bucolic scenes" that evoked "the rural America of a more relaxed era." Ann A. Flowers, writing for Horn Book, termed it "a gentle and affectionate story with illustrations to match."

Another book with an old-fashioned air is Mrs. Biddle-box, by Linda Smith. The title character wakes up on the wrong side of bed, with a growling stomach, to a dreary gray day. Instead of moping about all day, though, the woman takes her broom and sweeps the fog and gloom into a bowl, where she mixes it with some sun and bakes up a delicious cake. As the cake rises, Frazee depicts "the ample-bottomed baker dancing around the oven, her frizzy pigtail bopping along," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. With scenes such as this, "Frazee depicts the feisty little lady's energetic transformation from beleaguered grouch to jubilant cook with all the vigor it deserves," Joanna Rudge Long wrote in Horn Book.

"The most rewarding aspect of my work is telling stories with my pictures," Frazee once shared with SATA. "Often, the story I'm telling in the illustrations is different from the story that is being told in the words. Of course, the word-story and the picture-story should work together to create a seamless whole. That is the unique challenge of the picture book, and the reason it gives me such pleasure to illustrate them.

"Creating the pictures for my books generally takes me a year. I usually start by visualizing the characters, because once I know who my characters are, I can then imagine where they live and how they act. As I'm defining the characters and the setting, I am trying to visualize the entire book as an object. What size should it be? Is it horizontal or vertical? At what point in the text will the page turns be? Where is the type and where is the image? I work out the answers to these questions by doing tiny thumbnail sketches of the entire book on one piece of paper. Sometimes I work on thumbnail sketches for months."

Frazee, a mother of three herself, tackles every parent's biggest dinnertime nightmare in her illustrations for Mary Ann Hoberman's The Seven Silly Eaters. The Peters family demands that their harried, cellist mother prepare a separate dish for each of them; as the family grows larger, she grows more frantic and her days more arduous. Mary Lou will only eat homemade bread. Lucy is partial to lemonade made from scratch. Homemade applesauce is the only thing Jack will eat. "The limber lines and cartoon-like animation … handily match the energy and wit of the text's quatrain couplets," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Critics also praised the inviting, though cheerily chaotic household Frazee created, which would be most children's dream domicile.

Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Jon Agee commented upon the "busy, animated pictures [that] cleverly elaborate the story's growing disorder."

Frazee recounted the process by which she imagined the Peters family. "In the case of The Seven Silly Eaters," she once told SATA, "I had nine characters and a house to imagine. The characters were inspired by my own children, nieces, nephews, and neighbors—each one a very specific person, with a very specific set of quirks and endearments. This is how I know how each person would behave in a variety of circumstances. For instance, Peter Peters, the first-born son, tucks in even his pajamas in a quest for fastidiousness in that chaotic household, just as my own first-born son does. Jack Peters, goofball kid, sleeps in a bunk with a rope ladder and has a peg to hang his hat, because I know that my middle son would want to do the same. And Flo and Fran Peters, the twins, were modeled after my youngest son, who was rarely seen without his pacifier. I built the Peters' family home out of foamcore, so that I knew the floor plan as well as I do the house I live in. Anything I can do to make the book come alive for me, in the most tangible sense, will make it that much more believable to my readers."

Another book featuring a frazzled mother is Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, by Mem Fox. The preschooler Harriet is always making messes, even though she does not mean to be difficult and is always sorry. Harriet's mother does not mean to get angry and yell when Harriet is naughty, and when she is finally pushed over the edge when Harriet rips open her feather pillow at nap-time, she quickly apologizes too. "Extending the text," Kate McClelland wrote in School Library Journal, are Frazee's "expressive illustrations done in pencil and transparent drawing inks." These "handsome domestic vignettes" are "realistic and reassuring," thought a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Frazee once told SATA: "On the Morn of Mayfest was loosely set in a Renaissance Italian hill town, and while I would have loved to go to Italy to research the book, I did attend the local Renaissance Faire for costume ideas. Maybe because of that, the characters in my book wear sunglasses and hi-top tennis shoes, as though they are merely in costume, too." Carol Ann Wilson, in School Library Journal, found much to like in this fanciful tale of a young girl who becomes queen of the festival that heralds the arrival of spring. Wilson particularly appreciated Frazee's acrylic color drawings that "jauntily portray an entertaining cast of human and animal characters." A Publishers Weekly contributor remarked that Frazee and author Erica Silverman "form a happy, uncomplicated collaboration with a festive hint of history."

In her 2003 self-illustrated work, Roller Coaster, Frazee follows a young girl as she nervously waits in line to go on her first ever ride on the big roller coaster. Waiting with her are scores of other soon-to-be riders, and critics noted that Frazee's skill at illustrating the diverse crowd demands attention. The heart of the book is the nearly wordless spreads depicting the "breathtaking speed" of the coaster and the "hilarious range of rider reactions," both of which Frazee captures "with consummate skill," thought a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Humor comes from the unexpected expressions on various rider's faces at pivotal points in the ride—a little old lady throws her hands up in the air in joy, for example, while behind her two strapping young men grip their car with white knuckles. The many faces provide "a marvelous showcase for Frazee's expressive watercolors," commented a Publishers Weekly critic.

"The picture book audience is often pre-literate, so they 'read' the pictures as the words are being read to them," Frazee once explained to SATA. "Consequently, these young children notice every detail, follow every sequential action, pick up on every clue, and will carefully go back into the book after it has been read and find things they may have missed the first, second, or third time around. There isn't anything I've ever put into a book that a child hasn't, at one time or another, noticed. I can't say the same for adults. It is a rare grown-up that catches anything but the broad action. Also, there isn't any guessing when it comes to how much or if a child likes a given book. If a book bores them, they will get up and find something else to do. And if it's a book they like, they will hold onto it for dear life. When children's book authors and illustrators visit classrooms and bookstores, they are often the recipient of real big hugs. These are hugs of thanks, really, for the gift of a story.

"It is wonderful to work for an audience of children. I hope I am lucky enough to be a children's book illustrator for a very long time."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, April 15, 1995, Mary Harris Veeder, review of That Kookoory!, p. 1505; March 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of The Seven Silly Eaters, p. 1172; May 15, 1998, Kay Weisman, review of On the Moon of Mayfest, p. 1633; March 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 1250; November 15, 2002, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Mrs. Biddlebox, p. 612.

Horn Book, July-August, 1995, Ann A. Flowers, review of That Kookoory!, p. 449; May-June, 1997, Ann A. Flowers, review of The Seven Silly Eaters, p. 308; November, 1999, Martha V. Parravano, review of Hush, Little Baby, p. 752; March, 2000, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 184; May, 2001, review of Everywhere Babies, p. 312; November-December, 2002, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Mrs. Biddlebox, pp. 739-740; May-June, 2003, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Roller Coaster, pp. 328-329.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of Mrs. Biddle-box, p. 1144; May 1, 2003, review of Roller Coaster, p. 676.

Newsweek, December 1, 1997, Malcolm Jones, Jr., review of The Seven Silly Eaters, p. 78.

New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995, Jane Langton, review of That Kookoory!, p. 41; July 6, 1997, Jon Agee, review of The Seven Silly Eaters, p. 16; August 10, 2003, Jeanne B. Pinder, review of Roller Coaster, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, April 3, 1995, review of That Kookoory!, p. 62; February 3, 1997, review of The Seven Silly Eaters, p. 106; May 18, 1998, review of On the Morn of Mayfest, p. 78; August 30, 1999, review of Hush, Little Baby, p. 82; March 20, 2000, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 91; September 4, 2000, review of The Seven Silly Eaters, p. 110; March 19, 2001, review of Everywhere Babies, p. 98; July 15, 2002, review of Mrs. Biddlebox, p. 73; April 21, 2003, review of Roller Coaster, p. 61; June 9, 2003, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 54; September 8, 2003, review of Hush, Little Baby, p. 79.

School Library Journal, July, 1990, Bessie Egan, review of World Famous Muriel and the Magic Mystery, p. 55; May, 1995, Martha Topol, review of That Kookoory!, p. 84; June, 1998, Carol Ann Wilson, review of On the Morn of Mayfest, p. 122; October, 1999, Ginny Gustin, review of Hush, Little Baby, p. 138; April, 2000, Kate McClelland, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 104; October, 2002, Mary Ann Carcich, review of Mrs. Biddlebox, p. 132; July, 2003, Shelley B. Sutherland, review of Roller Coaster, p. 96.


Borders, http://www.bordersstores.com/ (April 28, 2004), Trudy Wyss, interview with Frazee.

Harcourt Trade Publishers, http://www.harcourtbooks.com/ (April 28, 2004), "Between the Lines," interview with Frazee.

Marla Frazee Home Page, http://www.marlafrazee.com/ (April 28, 2004).

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: E(mily) R. Frank (1967-) Biography - Personal to Martha Graham (1893–1991) BiographyMarla Frazee (1958-) Biography - Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Member, Writings